Abundant Folly, Real Hope
Series: Psalms: Experiencing the Truth
Though we see folly around us, within us, and against us, there is real hope in the LORD who promises to save his people.
Psalms 1-72 (Kidner Classic Commentaries), Derek Kidner
The Treasury of David, Charles Spurgeon
A couple weeks ago I was chatting with a friend at my gym who had jury duty recently, and the crime he was asked to assess involved considerable folly on the part of both parties involved. He asked in exasperation, “Why are people so stupid?” Folly is abundant in the world. The news networks are very different from one another: Watch an hour of FOX News and an hour of MSNBC, and you’d almost think they were reporting on two different worlds. But one thing they have in common: They’ll both tell you stories of folly; people doing foolish things and suffering the consequences, that make many say, “Why are people so stupid?” Through the lenses of the Bible, God shares with us his very wisdom, such that we get even more clarity on what is foolish, and so find even more reasons to say, “Why are people so stupid?” Yet what the Bible, and what this passage, won’t let us do, is simply ask that question about others. The entire Bible and this passage in particular force you to ask not only, “Why are people so stupid?” but “Why am I so stupid?” Or, to put it in the language of this passage, “Why am I so foolish?” In this text we’re going to see that folly abounds in the world, and it can be seen both in opposition to God’s people, and within God’s people. Yet we’re also going to see that there is hope for God’s people, whether we see folly around us, whether we see folly coming against us, or whether we see folly within us. Though the passage begins with folly, it ends with rejoicing and gladness. In this text we see a way to really face the folly of the world and of ourselves head on, without ending in cynicism. In fact, cynicism is positively ruled out for God’s people, because though folly abounds, the LORD will save his people. We’ll look at what the fool does, why it is foolish, and where there is hope.
What the fool does
The first thing the fool does according to our passage is he says in his heart, “There is no God.” Most obviously, this refers to theoretical atheism, denying the existence of God. No doubt many very intelligent people today deny the existence of God, though many very intelligent people also affirm the existence of God. But, despite my friend who had jury duty’s question, folly is not the same thing as stupidity. Folly is not the opposite of intelligence, but of wisdom. It is possible to be very intelligent while at the same time being very foolish. Someone may be able to solve advanced mathematical proofs while being unable to maintain healthy relationships because they lack the wisdom of holding their tongue, for example. Wisdom is more practical than intelligence. To attempt a quick definition, wisdom is the ability to foresee the likely outcomes of our actions and act accordingly. So being in a hard conversation and sensing that if you say a certain thing, it’s likely to drive the other person away, and therefore not saying it; that’s an example of wisdom, and the opposite would be folly. Those whose lives are characterized by folly, then, would be fools.
And so here we see that one thing the fool does is he says in his heart there is no God. There is such a thing as an intelligent atheist, but there is no such thing as a wise atheist. But verse 1 doesn’t only cover theoretical atheism, denying the existence of any god; it also covers what we might call practical atheism. Notice that the fool says in his heart that there is no God. It leaves open the possibility, then, that one might say in their mind, and with their lips, that there is a god, while saying in his heart, “There is no God.” This was my experience for the first 18 years or so of my life. I certainly believed in the existence of God, I even prayed occasionally that he’d keep my family safe, but functionally, in the day-to-day, I lived for the approval of my friends. Functionally, they existed; God didn’t. Consider an average day in your life. Maybe you have a morning routine, then you go to work, whether at home or elsewhere, then you finish for the day, eat something, and have a few hours in the evening for family or hobbies or something else. Consider: If I didn’t believe God existed, how would how you do those things, or what you do with that time, change? If the answer is, “It wouldn’t,” then you may be saying in your heart, “There is no God.”
So that’s the first thing the fool does: He denies God in his thoughts and/or life. In either case, they live as though there is no God, and how foolish it is, if God exists, to live as though he doesn’t. The next thing we see in verse 1 is that the fool is corrupt, he does abominable deeds, and there is none who does good. To corrupt means to ruin or spoil, and if you are living as if there is no god, it makes sense that you would ruin or spoil the good things God has made, because you will not be mindful of God’s purpose in making it. We often use the word “corrupt” to refer to people in positions of power who use their power for personal gain, typically at the expense of the truth. And doesn’t it make sense, that if someone is in a position of power, but is living as though there is no power above them, to whom they are accountable, that he would be willing to lie to further his own interests? Lying, in fact, is one of the simplest tests of what you say in your heart. When you have an opportunity to benefit yourself by being dishonest, and you know there’s no real way you’re likely to get caught, do you take it? When you must report your income on your taxes, when you must report your hours to your employer, when it’s time to tell the landlord, the rental car company, or the insurance provider what happened, are you entirely truthful? You say, “Well yeah but nobody tells the whole truth on those things,” but that’s the point: Folly abounds.
They do abominable deeds verse 1 goes on to say, and again, it makes sense, right? If you live as though there is no god, you won’t be evaluating your actions according to his standards, and therefore, you are likely to end up doing things that he finds abominable. The two most common abominable deeds in the Bible are sexual immorality, which is any sexual activity outside the covenant of marriage, and idolatry, the worship of something other than the true God or worshiping the true God in a way he has not authorized. It is unsurprising, then, that these are two things our world doesn’t find abominable at all, and indeed on some level celebrates. Jesus himself said in Luke 16:15 that “what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God”, and so we find sexual immorality and idolatry exalted in our world. In this country we even just came out of a month in which our world literally, to use its own word, takes pride in things that God calls abominable deeds. And how often in our world do we hear statements like, “No one way of worship is better than another” and “you have to relate to God in a way that’s right for you.” Again, even for those who may profess belief in God, this all amounts to a functional atheism: His assessment of our deeds is ignored, as is the way he has instituted for us to worship him acceptably.
Such folly is not the exception; it is the rule. Verse 1 ends with the words, “There is none who does good.” Some say, “Well now that seems a bit extreme. Yes there are a few terrible people out there, but most people are basically good, and some like Ghandi and Mother Theresa were really good, weren’t they?” Well, look at verse 2: The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. In other words, God is running the test. You say, “Surely there are many good people,” so God says, “Ok; I’ll look,” but notice the differences that already appear between his judgment and ours. The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, whereas we always look horizontally at the children of man. We are among them, and so we lack the perspective to render an objective judgment. It’s a bit like in race relations, if a group of white men say they’ve all examined each other and determined they aren’t at all racist, we wouldn’t typically take their word for that, because we recognize a lack of perspective and objectivity necessary to make such a judgment. We must recognize this also with respect to all the children of men. We’re all among them, and so we lack the perspective and objectivity necessary to judge whether we are good.
Furthermore, God defines goodness in unsurprisingly God-ward terms. Notice in verse 2 that he’s looking for any who understand, who seek after God. Understanding here would be the opposite of folly, and therefore, as the fool is the one who says in his heart that there is no God, so the one with understanding is not so much the one who simply says there is a God, but the one who seeks God. If God exists, the wise thing to do is not merely to acknowledge his existence, it’s to seek him, to get to know him, what he’s like, how we can worship him acceptably, how he does assess our deeds, what he considers good. So yes, it is better to feed the poor than to steal from the poor, and in that sense, there are some who do good, and some who do not, but if both the generous volunteer and the despicable criminal are saying in their heart, “There is no God,” if neither of them are seeking God, then in the judgment of the one who looks down from heaven, neither of them are ultimately doing good.
And verse 3 gives us the result of God’s test: It turns out that according to God’s standard, according to the only objective standard of heaven rather than the tainted and fallible standard of other humans on earth, they have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. The image here is of a humanity created face-to-face with a real God who really exists, but who have all turned aside from him. And just in case you were tempted to think maybe there is at least one good person out there, verse 3 closes that door too: There is none who does good, not even one.
This is the natural condition of every human. In verse 2, when it says the LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, the Hebrew word translated “man” is Adam. In other words, every human who descends from Adam by way of ordinary generation, from a human mother and father, is not only not perfect, but is not good. They are foolish, corrupt, doing abominable deeds, turning aside, not seeking God, not doing good, and that means you and me as well. You and I aren’t the exceptions, because there are no exceptions: Not even one. Do you recognize yourself in this description? You may be able to compare yourself favorably to other humans. You may be able to compare yourself favorably to a past version of yourself. But can you truly say you have not turned aside? Can you truly say you have always sought God? None can. The fool says in his heart, “There is no God,” and we have all been such fools. So let’s look next at why such a way of living is foolish.
Why it is foolish
In verse 4 the writer of the Psalm looks out at such a foolish humanity and asks, “Have they no knowledge?” It’s like he’s saying, “Don’t they get it?!” and here we get an additional picture of what this folly looks like: They eat up his people as they eat bread do not call upon the LORD. Remember that living as though there is no God means we disregard his design for things. He designed people to be loved, not to be eaten, yet here we read of the evildoers who eat up God’s people as they eat bread. And why shouldn’t they? If there is no God, and his people can be used for selfish gain, why not use them? This text isn’t referring to literal cannibalism, but it is referring to the persecution and oppression of God’s people, God’s people being those who call upon the LORD, which at the time this Psalm was written, was the nation of Israel, and which is now visible in true local churches.
God’s people are an easy target for those who live as if there is no God. For one thing, God’s people have a pesky habit of reminding them that there really is a God. We worship him, talk about him, seek him, and live as though he does exist, though we always feel how imperfectly we do so. When we refuse to join in corruption, and when we are willing to call abominable deeds abominable, whether we see them in ourselves or others, we are a threat to the world those who insist on living as if there is no god are fabricating for themselves. And, on top of that, we are forbidden by our God from retaliating! When evildoers eat us up, we must not eat back. And thus, we should expect that those who insist on living as if there is no God will oppose us. It just makes sense to do so: I can get rid of these people who are in the way of my feeling totally affirmed in living the way I want to live, and they can’t retaliate. Sounds like all benefit, no cost.
And yet, it is foolish. Why? Perhaps it’s already become obvious, but the big, kind of “meta” answer to this question of why living as if there is no God is foolish is because, well…there is a God. He really does exist. And so the end for the foolish, which we get an image of in verse 5, is great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous. On a simple level, we could start with just the first few words of that reason: There they are in great terror, for God is. Outside our minds, in reality, there is an invisible, omnipotent, spiritual being who made everything. Though they say in their hearts there is no god, a day is coming when they will be in great terror, and in a very real sense, they are right now in a terrible state. It’s like the Psalm is peeling back the thin veneer of the visible world, as the Bible so often does, and is showing us the spiritual reality. Though to our eyes the fool looks big, powerful, and free, doing what he wants in a world where we do not see any God, eating up God’s people like he eats bread, the spiritual reality is that he is a miniscule speck of dust in the presence of an all-powerful God from who he has turned aside. To live as though there is no God is foolish because God is.
And, to eat up God’s people as one eats bread is foolish because God is with the generation of the righteous. You know one of the more common examples of fools in our world is those who pick fights they can’t win. Similarly here, it is foolish to eat up God’s people like bread the one who made and rules over the universe, is with his people! To mess with them is to mess with him, and that puts the fool in a position of great terror.
In verse 6 we see that the fool thinks he is wise, as is always the case with fools in the Bible. He thinks he’s going to shame the plans of the poor. He looks at God’s people weak and afflicted and thinks, “Oh, I can definitely outsmart and outmaneuver them.” And he probably can. Because God’s people live as though there is a God, we don’t give as many of our resources to mastering life on this earth as those who live as though there is no God do. We typically have less power in this world; that’s what God teaches us to expect. So the world has its tactics: Flags, yard signs, labels, laws, insults, and throughout the world, even prison cells and guns, but none of it will prevail in the end, because the LORD is our refuge.
So, when you feel the hostility of the world, where do you turn? Our temptation is to fight or flee. They’re going to eat us like bread, we’ll eat back. They’re going to shame the plans of the poor, we’ll plan better! But I’ve already alluded to the fact that’s not the way God has given his people. Verse 6 doesn’t tell us to plan back and plan better. It tells us the LORD is our refuge. The other temptation is to flee, and what I mean by this is not so much physically fleeing persecution; there are times where that is wise and permitted by God. I mean “fleeing” persecution by toning down your faith, or perhaps even changing what you believe or how you live to better fit in with the world. It becomes tempting to overlook corruption, to never even use the word abominable, and to turn aside with the world to avoid the persecution of the world, but you have to have the wisdom to forsee the guaranteed outcome of that: You will be in great terror with the world on the day when God makes it clear to all that he is, and he is with the generation of the righteous, who you abandoned.
So when you feel the hostility of the world, don’t fight or flee. Instead, seek the LORD as your refuge. What’s that look like? On the simplest level, it looks like talking to the LORD about it in prayer. We do something like what the Psalmist does in this Psalm: We tell him what is happening, and ask him to act. That could include asking him to stop the evildoers, asking him to thwart their plans, asking him to have mercy upon and convert the evildoer, asking him to give you boldness to keep following him without fear even amid the opposition. And it involves remembering what is true of the LORD to whom you pray, which he has revealed in his word. In the first 6 verses of this Psalm, the Psalmist tells God what is happening, and then in verse 7 he shows us these two other elements of taking refuge in the LORD: He asks God to act, and he remembers what is true of the God to whom he prays. That is where there is hope when folly abounds, so let’s close by looking at it.
Where there is hope
The prayer in verse 7 is “Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion.” Zion was the mountain in Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, on which the temple was located, and the temple was where God promised to commune with his people. If the prayer had just been that salvation for Israel would come out of Jerusalem, it could have been construed as a prayer that it would come from the king, and be a kind of military salvation accomplished by the might and strategy of human strength. But the prayer is that it would come from Zion, the place of God’s dwelling with man. It is, ultimately, a wish that salvation would come from God. With the abundant folly in front of us, as it comes out in the hostility of the world, we call out to God for salvation from our enemies.
And we remember what’s true of him. Though the first half of verse 7 is a wish, the second half expresses confidence in what the LORD will do. It’s not if, but when the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, that the Psalmist tells Jacob to rejoice, and Israel to be glad. Jacob and Israel are interchangeable names, and to rejoice and be glad are synonyms. Though God’s people are poor and afflicted in the world, the Psalmist remembers that a day is coming, a day unseen when he writes it, when the LORD will restore the fortunes of his people. He will bring the salvation for which the Psalmist prayed. The foolish will be shown to be foolish. It will be clear that there really is a God, he really is with the generation of the righteous, and it is those who sought him, those who went to him as their refuge, who will be shown to be wise. The fools will be in great terror, while the fortunes of God’s people will be restored. And in that day, though now God’s people are so often afflicted with various trials, the Psalmist calls on God’s people to rejoice and be glad.
But in order for that day to come, in order for our fortunes to be restored, we needed not only to be saved from our enemies. We needed also to be saved from ourselves. In verses 4 and 7 Israel is called God’s people; in verse 5 they are called righteous. But remember in verses 2 and 3, that when the LORD looked down from heaven on the children of man, he was looking down on all the children of Adam, his people included, to see if there were any who seek for God, and remember the conclusion: Not even one. We were all under the power of sin by nature. We all lived as though there is no god, we all were corrupt, we all have done abominable deeds, and the good we should have done, we have left undone. No one seeks for God by nature. To the contrary, we have all turned aside, and the only way that we can now be considered God’s people, the only reason we can now be declared righteous in God’s sight, is because salvation has come out of Zion, not only for Israel, but for the world.
Jesus Christ is God’s answer to the prayer of verse 7. In him, salvation has come for Israel and for the world, though folly abounds both in Israel and in the world! The LORD looked down from heaven on the children of man, and found not even one who does good! So the LORD came down from heaven and became a man in Jesus Christ, that he might finally be the one who does good. He didn’t join in the corruption. He called the abominable abominable, and he himself said that’s why the world hated him: Because he testified against it, that its works were evil (John 7:7). The evildoers of his day ate him up like they eat bread when they beat him, shamed him, and nailed him to a cross. Though they appeared to shame his plans, this was all part of the Father’s plan. Jesus went through the great terror of God’s judgment we deserved on our behalf, and then God was with him, and raised him from the dead, so that whoever of all the children of Adam who believes in him could be forgiven of their folly and delivered from it. God found none who seek after him, so he sought after us in Jesus Christ. Confess your folly, confess that you are not only not perfect, but not good, confess that you have turned aside and not sought God, turn from your folly, and rest upon Christ for salvation. He is the salvation for Israel that has come out of Zion. He is the wisdom of God for fools. Come to him by faith, and he will become to you wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.
And if you are in him today, God has restored your spiritual fortunes. You’ve been blessed in him with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places! You now know in your heart not only that there is a God, but you know this God! In the spiritual reality behind the thin veneer of this visible world, while many are still in great terror, you now have peace with God, and are seated with Christ in a place of honor at the Father’s right hand! Rejoice and be glad! Put to death the corruption that remains in you. Don’t turn back to the abominable deeds from which Jesus saved you! Don’t fight or flee when you face the opposition of the world. Turn to the LORD as your refuge. Ask him to act, not only to restrain the evildoers, but to save the evildoers like he saved you, to use the trials to refine your faith and cleanse you of the corruption that remains, and to give you the boldness to keep speaking his word without fear. Rejoice and be glad even amid the opposition, for whatever the world can do to you now, it cannot separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. As long as we are in these bodies in this life and we are not living as though there is no God, we will experience this mixture of being eaten like bread, while rejoicing and being glad. Our fortunes have been restored in the heavenly places, so we rejoice and are glad. But there are still those who say in their heart there is no God, who eat us up as they eat bread. So we join the prayer of verse 7, and look forward to the day when, not if, Jesus will return, judge our enemies, and restore our fortunes in a new heaven and a new earth. When he does, let his people rejoice. We see folly around us, we see folly in ourselves, but the LORD save his people.